Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicaea

Article excerpt

READING THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS: FROM THE DIDACHE TO NICAEA. By James L. Papandrea. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2012. Pp. viii + 344. $24.95.

This volume aims to offer a comprehensive overview of the development of Christian theology from the subapostolic era to the time of the Arian controversy. Foregoing a detailed discussion of the era of the great councils, Papandrea focuses on the second and third centuries, a time when doctrinal and institutional fluidity within the Christian community resulted in a plurality of theological and disciplinary positions reflecting local sociocultural conditions. P. outlines the contribution of the early great apologists--such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria--as well as the theological vision of the first generation of systematic thinkers--such as Irenaeus and Origen--and concludes with a brief look at the great speculative syntheses of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian Fathers that laid the foundations of a unified consensus about christological and trinitarian questions. While Jaroslav Pelikan's masterful Christianity and Classical Culture (1993) mapped a web of correspondences between the Christian philosophy of the Cappadocians and the Neoplatonic philosophy of late antiquity, P. chooses to explore the development of theological doctrine against the background of the upheavals characterizing the last centuries of the Roman Empire, underscoring the crucial impact of different socioeconomic and military crises on a variety of crucial moments in the shaping of the Christian tradition.

P.'s survey of the earliest period of Christian literature, including the Apostolic Fathers as well as the apologists, covers territory familiar to all historians of Christian literature, but it offers a clear and concise precis of some of the foundational authors and works of the time, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Melito of Sardis. His discussion of major figures from the subapostolic era is equally clear and accessible, even if depth of treatment is somewhat sacrificed to brevity: Origen is presented in four pages, with only a few paragraphs about De principiis, and even the survey of Tertullian's life and work, which is the most detailed in the whole volume, is limited to eight. The presentation of individual authors is always fair and balanced, but it is not always immediately evident why a certain figure or text is given prominence over another: Athanasius of Alexandria is mentioned repeatedly throughout the text, but his contribution to the development of Nicene orthodoxy is covered in little more than a page (190-91), while the discussion of the Apostolic Tradition and the Didascalia Apostolorum occupies more than four pages (191-96). …